The OF Blog: An interesting quote on power and "freedom of speech"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An interesting quote on power and "freedom of speech"

Going to be writing a review of Robert Darnton's Censors at Work:  How States Shaped Literature in the next few days, but I thought this quote from his introduction might provide some food for thought when it comes to discussing the concept of freedom of speech:

In arguing for fundamental rights, philosophers use abstractions, but they generally understand that ideas take root in systems of power and communication.  John Locke, the philosopher most identified with theories of natural rights, did not invoke freedom of speech when pre-publication censorship ceased to be a rule of law in England.  Instead, he welcomed Parliament's refusal to renew the Licensing Act, which provided for censorship, as a victory over the booksellers in the Stationers' Company, whom he despised for their monopolistic practices and shoddy products.  Milton also railed against the Stationers' Company in Areopagitica, the greatest manifesto in English for freedom of press – great, but limited (no "popery" or "open superstition" to be permitted).  These examples, and others one could cite (Diderot, for instance) do not prove that philosophers failed to advocate the freedom of press as a matter of principle but rather that they understood it as an ideal to be defended in a real world of economic interests and political lobbies.  For them, liberty was not an unworldly norm but a vital principle of political discourse, which they worked into the social reconstruction of reality that took place in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Europe.  Many of us live in the world that they created, a world of civil rights and shared values.  The Internet did not condemn that moral order to obsolescence.  Nothing would be more self-defeating than to argue against censorship while dismissing the tradition that leads from the ancients through Milton and Locke to the First Amendment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This argument may sound suspiciously high-minded.  It has more than a whiff of Whiggishness, and it may smell like rank liberalism.  I must confess to liberal sympathies myself and to finding Areopagitica one of the most moving polemical works that I have ever read.  But I also should amit that I sympathize with a second approach to the subject, which undercuts the first.  Whether spoken or written, words exert power.  In fact, the power of speech operates in ways that are not fundamentally different from ordinary actions in the everyday world.  Speech acts, as understood by linguistic philosophers, are intended to produce effects in the surrounding environment; and when they take written form, there is no reason to associate them exclusively with literature.  Some literary theorists go so far as to argue that it is meaningless to separate out a category, hallowed and hedged by constitutional restrictions, called freedom of speech.  As Stanley Fish proclaimed in a provocative essay, "There is no such thing as freedom of speech – and it's a good thing, too." (pp. 18-19)

Yes, I sense a very detailed review in the near future.

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